China has sent its basketball legend Yao Ming on a visit to North Korea in an attempt to promote ties through sport following a series of high-level talks between the countries’ officials.
The former Houston Rockets player – selected eight times for the NBA All-Star Game involving the American league’s star players – was in attendance on Tuesday when Chinese and North Korean basketball players held a friendly match in Pyongyang.
The director of China’s State General Administration of Sports, Guo Zhongwen, and the Chinese ambassador to North Korea, Li Jinjun, were also present at the Pyongyang Ryugyong Chung Ju-yung Gymnasium.
Senior North Korean officials including sports minister Kim Il-guk and foreign affairs minister Ri Su-yong were also at the game.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who was famously serenaded with a rendition of Happy Birthday by former basketball player Dennis Rodman in Pyongyang in 2014, was not at the arena.
“We warmly welcome the Chinese sports delegation to visit [North Korea] during a period when the friendship between the two countries is improving,” Kim Il-guk said at Tuesday’s match. “Today’s competition will solidify the ties between the people of the two countries.”
Relations between China and North Korea had been tense because of the North’s missile testing and China’s endorsement of United Nations sanctions against it. But relations improved this year with Kim Jong-un visiting China three times and both nations pledging to step up economic cooperation.
The high-profile sporting display of friendship followed in the footsteps of inter-Korean sport. North and South Korea sent a united team of athletes to compete in some sports at the Asian Games in August, after staging basketball matches in July between Team Peace and Team Prosperity, each mixing both countries’ players.
Female Chinese and North Korean basketball players followed the same format on Tuesday in mixed teams named Friendship and Unity. The Unity team won the match 107-106.
Senior officials of the two countries also “exchanged their views on the sporting cooperation at the People’s Cultural Palace” on Tuesday, according to the Korean Central News Agency.
The Chinese sports delegation, including male and female players, arrived in Pyongyang on Monday afternoon before North Korea’s Party Foundation Day on Wednesday, marking the 1945 foundation of the precursor of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.
The Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese embassy in North Korea sent floral baskets to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea on Wednesday to congratulate the latter on its 73rd anniversary, according to North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency.
Improving ties with its communist neighbour may represent Beijing’s wish to keep Pyongyang close given the ongoing talks on denuclearisation, particularly with a second summit planned between Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump.
“We can see that sport is being used as an extension of politics – it is an important political tool that is being used here by North Korea and Beijing,” said James Floyd Downes, a lecturer in comparative politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“The main message here is that Beijing has geographical proximity on its side, which the United States does not. Beijing is showing its strength and ability to negotiate politically with North Korea at its whim, and showing the US its geopolitical strength in the region.”